By Don Stap
Along a ridge in Florida, an
ecological house built on sand
Once islands in a shallow sea, patches
of scrub form a 'little Galpagos,' home
to dozens of species found nowhere else
Writhing trunks and the fronds and flowers of This overgrown patch was burned a year earlier
saw palmettos dominate a low-level view of scrub, to open it up again for its many endemic species.
On a sunny March day John Fitzpatrick, director of the Though the oaks grow in formidable thickets, there
Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Florida, are also open patches of bare sand and, in places,
takes me for a drive to show me a tract of Florida scrub, clumps of prickly pear cactus. Under the late winter sun,
a peculiar ecosystem estimated to be two million years the dull, overlapping greens of the scrub resemble that
old. Pulling off the highway at the edge of a citrus grove confusing section of a jigsaw puzzle one leaves for last.
near the station, Fitzpatrick plows up a slope of fine, The only outstanding features are the few scattered pine
white sand in his four-wheel-drive Bronco. Bouncing trees that dominate the landscape, their straight trunks
and twisting, we ascend a hill that rises 150 feet, about as rising branchless 40 feet or more before blossoming
great an uprise as one can find in Florida. At the top of into evergreen crowns. The miniature forest beneath
the ridge, we get out and walk a few steps into a patch- the pines looks as barren as living matter can appear.
work of stunted, gnarled vegetation that indeed looks When early travelers came upon an expanse of the in-
ancient. The twisted trunks of saw palmettos, which hospitable scrub, they saw a wasteland. One visitor
have grown as much horizontally as vertically, appear wrote: "These tracts are, in fact, concealed deserts, as
wilted, barely able to rise off the ground; dwarf oaks, they are too poor to admit of cultivation, and afford
whose thick leaves have curled like dried leather under nothing that is fit, even for the browsing of cattle." A
the Florida sun, are no more than five or six feet tall. later visitor observed that scrub "appears to desire to dis-
Photographs by Cameron Davidson
The riches of the wasteland
Stripping the scrub to plant an orange grove reveals
the land for what it is: the top of a 200-foot sand dune.
play the result of the misery through which it has passed
and is passing in its solution to life's grim riddle."
A grim riddle is, perhaps, how it appears to Fitz-
patrick some days. Most Floridians still see scrub as
nothing more than a repository for their old refrigera-
tors, but a 1991 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report
notes that "nowhere else in the United States, including
Hawaii and Puerto Rico, do so many narrowly endan-
gered plants occur so near to each other." An astound-
ing 40 percent of the plants found in scrub are endemic
to it. Of these, 17 are listed by the federal government as
endangered, 4 as threatened, and one more is on the
waiting list. Yet these dry uplands-the oldest ecosystem
in the Southeast-have probably been disappearing
faster than any other habitat in the United States. Ap-
proximately 85 percent of Florida's original scrub has
Only moments earlier, we had stopped on the side of
the road and Fitzpatrick had pointed out my window to
what he called "the Moonscape": 1,600 acres of sand.
There, several years earlier, a citrus grower and devel-
oper had scraped bare what had been the largest, pri-
vately owned, untouched tract of scrub in the state.
When Fitzpatrick first drove out to look at the damage,
he found scrub jays, a species that lives only in scrub,
John Fitzpatrick, Archbold director, doubles as perch perched on all that remained of their home: the bull-
for ajay in a patch of typical central Florida scrub, dozed piles of uprooted trees. The jays had nowhere to
ing bouquets of flowers fit for a doll's house, and the
only sign of many animals is a burrow entrance.
s h The inhabitants of scrub are often as peculiar as they
are diminutive: the short-tailed snake has no known rel-
atives and no fossil record; the scrub firefly flies in day-
light; and the rare sand skink, a nearly legless lizard, sel-
dom sees the light of day, preferring to spend its time
beneath the sand, where it swims fish-fashion in pursuit
of its prey-termites and beetle larvae.
Scrub is also home to many Florida animals whose
numbers are diminishing throughout the state, including
the Bachman's sparrow, Eastern indigo snake, blue-tailed
mole skink, Florida black bear, fox squirrel and, occa-
sionally, the state's rarest mammal, the Florida panther.
A scrub mint that repels insects
Little is known about the plants that grow in scrub,
though one member of the mint family, the Lake Placid
scrub mint, has been studied extensively by Cornell
University biologist Thomas Eisner. An endangered
species, the mint grows in no more than a dozen sites
that cover a total of a few-hundred acres. Eisner, who,
Citrus growers have moved south to escape frost and like everyone else, noticed its potent spearmint fra-
to take advantage of what is clearly well-drained soil. grance, found that the plant repels insects. He envisions
a time when the scrub mint can be genetically grafted to
Many of the rarest scrub plants grow on the site where
go, and they would die slowly over the next few months. Fitzpatrick and I stand. "This," Fitzpatrick says, looking
Fitzpatrick, a highly regarded ornithologist and for- over the vegetation before us, "is one of the finest pieces
mer chairman of zoology at the Field Museum of Natur- of this type of scrub. Look, here's sandlace, and here's
al History in Chicago, has been studying scrub jays for Ashe's savory." Both plants, in their winter dormancy,
more than two decades. As a college student, he came to are spindly, withered specimens that could easily go un-
Archbold in the summer of 1972 to help University of noticed. Kneeling down, Fitzpatrick sees three more
South Florida professor Glen Woolfenden study the be- scrub plants: papery whitlow-wort, Highlands scrub St.
havior of scrub jay fledglings. Over the years, Woolfen- John's wort and wedge-leaf button snakeroot.
den and Fitzpatrick have documented traits that enable Regardless of the rare plants here, the same citrus
the jays to thrive in that unaccommodating habitat. company, which owns this 200-acre site as well, had
That anything lives in scrub is a testament to the effi- planned to bulldoze it shortly after it cleared the 1,600-
cacy of evolution. The conditions of Florida scrub are acre tract to the north. When Fitzpatrick heard this, he
extreme, and paradoxical. Although Florida summers got on the phone. "I called them and asked if they would
are hot and humid, dominated by intense afternoon consider selling this parcel to Archbold," he explains.
thundershowers, and the annual rainfall averages 50 "No, the answer came back-it was already charted for
inches, scrub is a desert habitat: rain drains quickly citrus. A bulldozer would be out to clear it in a week or
through the fine sand as if through a sieve, two, they told me. At that point, I resorted to begging. Fi-
Indeed, the patch of scrub now before me looks like a nally, they asked me which corner of the 200 acres would
bonsai garden gone to seed. In scrub, people become I most like to see preserved if they decided to save any of
giants, their heads poking out above the treetops. "You it. 'The northeast corner,' I told them. It was the highest
have to get down on your hands and knees and look at it point of the hill with the greatest diversity of rare plants."
from a gopher tortoise's point of view," Fitzpatrick likes A week later the bulldozers were out at work-"on the
to say. Many plants grow only a few inches high, produc- northeast corner!" Fitzpatrick exclaims. "I called them im-
mediately. I lost my cool and really let loose. 'If that's
Don Stap, whose A Parrot Without a Name describes the kind of image of your company that you want to pre-
the search for new bird species in South America, sent,' I told them, 'we can make sure everyone in Flori-
teaches English at the University of Central Florida. da sees it.'" The bulldozers were called off.
Now, Fitzpatrick stands up and spreads his arms wide.
"People say, 'You want to save everything.' No, we don't,
I tell them. We just want to save what's left-the crumbs
of the pizza so one and all can smell them and imagine
what the whole pie must have been like."
From the ridgetop, orange trees run in every direc-
tion as far as the horizon-roughly four million trees,
worth at their maturity about $21 million in net profits
annually. "Nothing lives in an orange grove," Fitzpatrick J
says, "except mockingbirds."
Much of Florida's citrus industry moved south to
Highlands County, where Archbold and most of the re-
maining scrub is located, after several freezes in the
1970s and '80s destroyed many of the Orlando-area
Florida panther, the state's most endangered mammal, groves 100 miles to the north. Citrus growers prefer
sometimes enters scrub in its constant search for deer. Highlands County not only because damaging freezes
are highly unlikely but because the county is aptly
named: it is high land, and orange trees grow best in well-
drained soil like the fine "sugar sand" found in scrub.
Standing on top of a 200-foot dune
This sand is the key to the origin of scrub. Where Fitz-
patrick and I stand it is more than 200 feet deep. We
are, in fact, atop a sand dune formed millions of years
ago when the Atlantic Ocean-now 60 miles to the
east-would have been lapping the beach little more
than a stone's throw from us.
The Florida peninsula is a recent addition to North
Endemic, nearly legless sand skink "swims" through the America, appearing above water for the first time about
soil as it hunts termites, beetle larvae and other prey. 25 million years ago when sea levels worldwide fell dra-
Francis Lepine matically. Since then, the seas have risen and fallen sev-
eral times. During periods of high sea level, when the
peninsula was only a few miles wide, wave action piled
up sand dunes which, when the seas receded to their
present level, formed a ridge that runs down the center
of the peninsula.
When the water level was particularly high, the upper-
most points on the Florida ridge became an archipel-
ago-"a little version of the Galipagos Islands," as Fitz-
patrick says-on which evolved species unique to their
own isolated habitat. Today these sandy islands, like the
one Fitzpatrick and I stand on, are surrounded by a sea
of orange groves and housing developments.
A major section of this sandy spine, known as the Lake
Wales Ridge, extends southward from an area just west
of Orlando to the southern boundary of Highlands
County. Roughly 100 miles long and 4 to 10 miles wide,
this ridge holds a large portion of the extant scrub in
the state. Archbold scientists have determined that of
600,000 original acres of scrub and related xeric habitat
on the Lake Wales Ridge system, fewer than 10,000
acres of the unique scrub remain. Fitzpatrick has a map
Several pairs of nonmigratory Florida sandhill cranes in his office of this remaining scrub-200 tiny islands
forage on the grounds of the Archbold Biological Station. inked in against a white background. The pattern looks
like someone has flicked the last bit of paint off a brush.
In the mid-1980s a number of biologists around the
state began to take a special interest in scrub, realizing
that at the rate it was being cleared, nothing would be
left by the turn of the century. David Martin, a botanist
with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, began talking
about a national wildlife refuge. In concert with Arch-
bold and the Nature Conservancy, Martin put together a
proposal that would protect 10,000 acres on 12 separate '
sites. The Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge,
the first such refuge designated primarily to preserve
flora, will protect 26 plants, 4 vertebrates federally list-
ed as threatened species and more than 40 species of
rare endemic invertebrates. Florida's Conservation and
Recreation Lands Program, perhaps the nation's most
ambitious, is set to purchase the majority of the now-
planned 20,000 acres, but the acquisition process is ago- Wedge-leaf button snakeroot inhabits open gaps between
nizingly slow, and although Congress approved the ref- shrubs but vanishes when scrub becomes too overgrown.
uge in 1992, it has so far appropriated only $2 million.
Thomas Eisner John W. Fitzpatrick
For the time being, very little scrub is protected.
Archbold owns about 5,000 acres, and the Nature Con-
servancy owns another 1,500. The same day that Fitz-
patrick showed me the 200-acre "scrub island" owned by
the large developer-citrus grower, he met with Nature
Conservancy officials who had brought a prospective
patron to Archbold to show her the kind of land her do-
nation would protect. On such occasions, Fitzpatrick
takes guests on what has become his routine VIP tour of
scrub jay country. I went along.
Scrub jay goes right for the peanut
We drove a few hundred feet down a fire lane. On foot,
we followed Fitzpatrick a short distance into the scrub,
where he reached into his pocket and pulled out a
peanut. He pursed his lips and made the "splish-splish-
splish" sound used by bird-watchers everywhere to call Lake Placid scrub mint (left) is endangered, while
in curious birds. In seconds a scrub jay came zooming in pigeon-wing butterfly pea is only threatened-so far.
over the treetops and, rather than alighting on a nearby
branch, brazenly landed on Fitzpatrick's outstretched
arm to pick at the peanut he held tightly between his
thumb and forefinger.
Reading the bird's leg bands, Fitzpatrick announced,
"This is dash-silver-azure-yellow. He's the oldest living jay
in this study site-14 years old." Before he had finished
his sentence several more jays arrived, perching on any
convenient shoulder, head or forearm. The top of a scrub
jay's head, its wings and tail are azure blue, the underside
an exceptionally fine silver-gray. A brown patch covers
the upper back like a small cape. It was the bold glint in
one particular jay's black eye that drew my attention,
though-that and the strength of its grip on my arm.
The Florida scrub jay's well-developed legs-which
have evolved, Fitzpatrick speculates, because it spends Another endemic, Curtiss' milkweed, is a solitary
considerable time hopping around in open patches of species whose presence indicates scrub in Florida.
A carefully planned fire roars through a patch The entire ecosystem is dependent on periodic fire
of badly overgrown scrub at the Archbold station. and quickly becomes a much poorer place without it.
sand where it stores acorns-is one trait that distin- jays remain with the family, waiting to inherit a territory,
guishes it from western scrub jays. Most likely, western because scrub has always existed in isolated pockets.
jays colonized the Southeast when the Gulf of Mexico Consequently, the young jays have nowhere to go once a
was dry land. Ornithologists now agree that the Florida tract of scrub is filled to capacity, one family per 20
scrub jay is a distinct species. acres. Today, with much less habitat, Florida's scrub jay
When Glen Woolfenden began his study of the birds population is estimated at 4,000 breeding pairs, com-
in 1969, he noticed that young jays remained with their pared with the 15,000 or more pairs that inhabited the
parents to help defend the territory and even raise the Lake Wales Ridge alone before the age of bulldozers.
fledglings the following year, a rare trait in the avian A few weeks after my visit with Fitzpatrick, I returned
world. After Fitzpatrick joined him in 1972, the two re- to Archboldjust in time to watch 28 acres of scrub go up
searchers discovered a number of other traits that link in flames. A billowing plume of white smoke was rising
the jays to scrub. The birds feed in the winter months into the sky as I drove up to the headquarters. Moments
primarily on acorns produced by the four endemic later I was escorted to the front line of the fire where I
species of dwarf oak, each jay harvesting as many as met Eric Menges, Archbold's resident plant ecologist,
8,000 acorns a year. The jays need the open, sandy areas who was hastily eating a peanut butter and jelly sand-
because they bury the acorns, returning to eat them which. "We just started," he told me, pointing toward a
later. They've also developed a communal system to strip of still-smoldering scrub.
handle the threat of aerial predators, one that works For tens of thousands of years, flames have ravaged
only in scrub where the treetops are low and relatively the state's dry uplands. The fires were frequent-Flori-
uniform. The jays post sentinels, which can sit at treetop da averages more ground strikes from lightning than
level and see any hawk coming into the territory, any other place in North America-and, consequently,
Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick believe the young scrub the scrub ecosystem evolved as a pyrogenic community:
I .. -i . t I ---I . . .. .. i t t i
plants and animals alike adapted to the recurring fires, shook in the thermal updrafts. The fire climbed them in
Fire is now as essential to the long-term health of scrub a matter of seconds, engulfing the crowns all at once. In
as rainfall. To re-create what once was natural, each year an instant the cones of the sand pines glowed red, light-
Menges burns off patches of overgrown scrub, ing up like Christmas-tree lights.
Without frequent fires, the elfin woodland becomes As the fire approached to within 30 feet, it felt like a
so dense it chokes out virtually all undergrowth, leaving hot iron pressed against my chest. We began to back up.
few of the grasses and herbaceous plants that gopher The palmetto fronds before us crackled and sizzled, dis-
tortoises, white-tailed deer, the endangered Florida integrating from the heat even before the flames
mouse and other scrub inhabitants depend on for food. reached them. Menges gestured to a blackened area be-
In addition, the oaks of overgrown scrub stop produc- hind us. The roar of the fire, like a sheet of metal being
ing enough acorns for scrub jays, and the spreading whipped back and forth, made conversation nearly im-
trees cover up the sandy patches where jays would cache possible. We stepped back into the safety of the burned-
them. In fact, the presence of the jays is a sure sign of out scrub, then backed up farther. The 70-foot tidal
healthy scrub. Their absence, as was the case in the wave of flame coming at us hit a wall of nothing and fell
scrub Menges was burning off, indicated a patch that to the foot of the last oaks. A cactus contorted in the in-
was unnaturally overgrown, tense heat, slumping like a deflated balloon.
Later, looking at the remains of the fire, I found it
In just four hours, 35, 000 acres hard to think of this as "habitat restoration." The trunks
of the pines were scorched black, their bark reduced to
On this day, Menges had selected a 28-acre tract of charcoal. The dwarf oaks were leafless skeletons. All
scrub that had not burned since the 1920s. Because that remained of the palmettos were the clustered
overgrown scrub is dense, extremely dry and filled with
branches the right size for kindling, it produces a spec-
tacular fire. To manage a fire in scrub, one first burns
narrow strips called "black lines" on three sides of the
woodlands so that as sections of the tract are burned off,
the wind will drive the fire into the black lines, where it
will die out for lack of fuel. Theoretically.
If, however, a sudden breeze lifted embers across the
black lines, the thermal currents might drop them any-
where. With this in mind, a crew stood ready to put out
spot fires. Another person in an all-terrain vehicle pa-
trolled the area, looking for trouble. If a spot fire threat-
ened to get out of control, Archbold's own firetruck,
vintage 1956, stood ready. Small spot fires were routine,
but what Menges feared was a sudden shift in the wind
that might start a major blaze. Scrub wildfires are virtu-
ally uncontrollable. In 1935 lightning started a fire in
the scrub in Ocala National Forest. In only four hours,
the wildfire raged through 35,000 acres.
For the next two hours Menges and his crew contin-
ued burning off small sections of the tract. Putting on a
firefighter's flame-retardant coat, I went with Menges
into the heart of the tract to get a closer look at one of
the fires that two crew members were lighting. We
squeezed through a thicket of dwarf oak.
"You can see how hard it is to get into the middle of
scrub to set a fire to burn off even just a piece of it,"
Menges said. "Your adrenaline really gets going, and
you're always looking around for an escape route. In
dense scrub like this, it would be hard to outrun a fire."
As Menges spoke, we could hear the fire coming our
way. A hundred feet ahead of us we could see plumes of
black and white smoke rising swiftly, then mushrooming Eric Menges checks damage to a slash pine scorched
200 feet into the air. Seventy-foot pine trees swayed and by fire three months earlier; palmetto is thriving.
island he had shown me on my first visit, and the wildlife
refuge was now the number four priority on the state's
land acquisition program, preservation efforts were
moving very slowly. Worst of all, a 4,000-acre acquisition
was falling through because the state had taken three
years to map boundaries, appraise the land and then
make an offer of $1,000 per acre, which Fitzpatrick
called "ridiculously low." Outraged, he called the state
and asked, "When was the last decade that someone paid
that price for land of that kind around here?"
(Last month, Fitzpatrick reported that finally the
state had purchased a 3,300-acre tract of particularly
valuable scrub, and other acquisitions looked a bit
"We have a chance here to save a whole ecosystem,
Fitzpatrick said. "We're always asked why bother saving
The father rides calmly along as 11-day-old scrub jay it, to which one can reply, 'Why save the Mona Lisa? It's
chicks are taken from nest to be banded and weighed. old and doesn't produce anything for us either.'"
Beyond the moral imperative, Fitzpatrick argued that
we should preserve these dry, scrawny woods for the
same reason we say we must save tropical rain forests:
trunks, which looked like the contorted arms of a dying self-interest. "Scrub is a gold mine of genetic informa-
octopus. Everything was covered with black ash-the tion," Fitzpatrick points out. "These are plants that have
negative of a winter scene. I could not imagine a more spent a million years evolving ways to deal with a very
desolate landscape. specialized problem: hot, wet summers, cool, dry win-
Scrub plants, however, have evolved remarkable ters, poor soil-all things that humans have to deal with
means to survive such fires. The cones of sand pines usu- in agricultural systems all over the world. These plants
ally open only in response to the 400-degree heat of a may be holding secrets to how we can end up genetically
fire; in the following days the seeds of a new genera- engineering our agricultural systems to improve them,
tion of trees fill the air. Dwarf oaks maintain 75 per- especially in dealing with a warmer planet."
cent of their biomass safely beneath the sand, and Flori- Later that day I walked through the previous year's
da rosemary releases a chemical into the soil around burn site with Eric Menges, who pointed out some of
it, apparently to stop its own seeds from germina- the new growth. Cutthroat grass now carpeted the area.
ting. The seeds do not sprout until a fire kills off the The palmettos were once again green, and oak sprouts
parent plant. were growing profusely nearly everywhere we stepped.
At one point that day I had asked Menges about the Several plants were flowering: slender blazing star, Edi-
animals that were caught in the fire. Raccoons and many son's St. John's wort and tarflower. Scrub blueberry,
other mammals, he told me, retreat into gopher tortoise which bears fruit only the first few years after a fire, was
burrows, which they share year-round with the tortoises. flourishing as well. We picked a few of the ripened
Some lizards will burrow quickly beneath the sand, berries, not much bigger than peppercorns and not
while others scurry to keep ahead of the flames. A few much sweeter.
birds may lose their nests when fires are set in the Animals, too, had moved back into the area. We
spring, but over all, the casualties are few. "You have to scared up a pair of ground doves as we walked, and I
take the long view," Menges said, explaining that could hear a towhee calling-then, somewhere in the
healthy scrub supports far more animals than over- distance, a great-crested flycatcher. I stopped a moment
grown scrub, to watch two red-bellied woodpeckers circle a dead pine
Almost exactly a year later, I visited Archbold once tree. In two more years, maybe three, the oaks would
again. I was curious to see what the previous year's burn bear acorns again, and a family of scrub jays would
looked like. First, though, I spoke with John Fitzpatrick. move into the area, staking out a new territory amid the
What progress had been made on the Lake Wales Ridge austere beauty of this timeworn forest.
National Wildlife Refuge? Had the state or federal gov-
ernment purchased any land during the past year?
"No," he answered bluntly.
In fact, Fitzpatrick was unhappy. Although the Nature A marked gopher tortoise, whose burrow may shelter
Conservancy hoped to buy the 200-acre ridgetop scrub a variety of other animals, makes its way down a fire lane.
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